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Mazeppa’s Ride

by George Gordon Byron, 1881

(Mazeppa, Stanzas 9–17.)

“BRING forth the horse”!—the horse was brought;
  In truth he was a noble steed,
  A Tartar of the Ukraine breed,
Who look’d as though the speed of thought
Were in his limbs; but he was wild,
  Wild as the wild deer, and untaught,
With spur and bridle undefiled—
  ’Twas but a day he had been caught;
And snorting, with erected mane,
And struggling fiercely, but in vain,
In the full foam of wrath and dread
To me the desert-born was led:
They bound me on, that menial throng,
Upon his back with many a thong;
Then loosed him with a sudden lash—
Away!—away!—and on we dash!—
Torrents less rapid and less rash.

Away!—away!—My breath was gone—
I saw not where he hurried on:
’Twas scarcely yet the break of day,
And on he foam’d—away!—away!—
The last of human sounds which rose,
As I was darted from my foes,
Was the wild shout of savage laughter,
Which on the wind came roaring after
A moment from that rabble rout:
With sudden wrath I wrench’d my head,
  And snapp’d the cord, which to the mane
  Had bound my neck in lieu of rein,
And, writhing half my form about,
Howl’d back my curse; but ’midst the tread,
The thunder of my courser’s speed,
Perchance they did not hear nor heed:
It vexes me—for I would fain
Have paid their insult back again.
I paid it well in after days:
There is not of that castle gate,
Its drawbridge and portcullis’ weight,
Stone, bar, moat, bridge, or barrier left;
Nor of its fields a blade of grass,
  Save what grows on a ridge of wall,
  Where stood the hearth-stone of the hall;
And many a time ye there might pass,
Nor dream that e’er that fortress was:
I saw its turrets in a blaze,
Their crackling battlements all cleft,
  And the hot lead pour down like rain
From off the scorch’d and blackening roof,
Whose thickness was not vengeance-proof.
  They little thought that day of pain,
When launch’d as on the lightning’s flash,
They bade me to destruction dash,
  That one day I should come again,
With twice five thousand horse, to thank
  The Count for his uncourteous ride.
They play’d me then a bitter prank,
  When, with the wild horse for my guide,
They bound me to his foaming flank:
At length I play’d them one as frank—
For time at last sets all things even—
  And if we do but watch the hour,
  There never yet was human power
Which could evade, if unforgiven,
The patient search and vigil long
Of him who treasures up a wrong.

Away, away, my steed and I,
  Upon the pinions of the wind,
  All human dwellings left behind;
We sped like meteors through the sky,
When with its crackling sound the night
Is chequer’d with the northern light:
Town—village—none were on our track,
  But a wild plain of far extent,
And bounded by a forest black;
  And, save the scarce seen battlement
On distant heights of some strong hold,
Against the Tartars built of old,
No trace of man. The year before
A Turkish army had march’d o’er;
And where the Spahi’s hoof hath trod,
The verdure flies the bloody sod:—
The sky was dull, and dim, and gray,
  And a low breeze crept moaning by—
  I could have answer’d with a sigh—
But fast we fled, away, away—
And I could neither sigh nor pray;
And my cold sweat-drops fell like rain
Upon the courser’s bristling mane;
But, snorting still with rage and fear,
He flew upon his far career:
At times I almost thought, indeed,
He must have slacken’d in his speed;
But no—my bound and slender frame
  Was nothing to his angry might,
And merely like a spur became:
Each motion which I made to free
My swoln limbs from their agony
  Increased his fury and affright:
I tried my voice,—’twas faint and low,
But yet he swerved as from a blow;
And, starting to each accent, sprang
As from a sudden trumpet’s clang;
Meantime my cords were wet with gore,
Which, oozing through my limbs, ran o’er;
And in my tongue the thirst became
A something fierier far than flame.

We near’d the wild wood—’twas so wide,
I saw no bounds on either side;
’Twas studded with old sturdy trees,
That bent not to the roughest breeze
Which howls down from Siberia’s waste,
And strips the forest in its haste,—
But these were few, and far between
Set thick with shrubs more young and green,
Luxuriant with their annual leaves,
Ere strown by those autumnal eves
That nipt the forest’s foliage dead,
Discolour’d with a lifeless red,
Which stands thereon like stiffen’d gore
Upon the slain when battle’s o’er,
And some long winter’s night hath shed
Its frost o’er every tombless head,
So cold and stark the raven’s beak
May peck unpierced each frozen cheek:
’Twas a wild waste of underwood,
And here and there a chestnut stood,
The strong oak, and the hardy pine;
  But far apart—and well it were,
Or else a different lot were mine—
  The boughs gave way, and did not tear
My limbs; and I found strength to bear
My wounds, already scarr’d with cold—
My bonds forbade to loose my hold.
We rustled through the leaves like wind,
Left shrubs, and trees, and wolves behind;
By night I heard them on the track,
Their troop came hard upon our back,
With their long gallop, which can tire
The hound’s deep hate, and hunter’s fire:
Where’er we flew they follow’d on,
Nor left us with the morning sun;
Behind I saw them, scarce a rood,
At day-break winding through the wood,
And through the night had heard their feet
Their stealing, rustling step repeat.
Oh! how I wish’d for spear or sword,
At least to die amidst the horde,
And perish—if it must be so—
At bay, destroying many a foe.
When first my courser’s race begun,
I wish’d the goal already won;
But now I doubted strength and speed.
Vain doubt! his swift and savage breed
Had nerved him like the mountain-roe;
Nor faster falls the blinding snow
Which whelms the peasant near the door
Whose threshold he shall cross no more,
Bewilder’d with the dazzling blast,
Than through the forest-paths he past—
Untired, untamed, and worse than wild;
All furious as a favour’d child
Balk’d of its wish; or fiercer still—
A woman piqued—who has her will.

  The wood was past; ’twas more than noon,
But chill the air, although in June;
Or it might be my veins ran cold—
Prolong’d endurance tames the bold;
And I was then not what I seem,
But headlong as a wintry stream,
And wore my feelings out before
I well could count their causes o’er;
And what with fury, fear, and wrath,
The tortures which beset my path,
Cold, hunger, sorrow, shame, distress,
Thus bound in nature’s nakedness;
Sprung from a race whose rising blood
When stirr’d beyond its calmer mood,
And trodden hard upon, is like
The rattle-snake’s in act to strike,
What marvel if this worn-out trunk
Beneath its woes a moment sunk?
The earth gave way, the skies roll’d round,
I seem’d to sink upon the ground;
But err’d, for I was fastly bound.
My heart turn’d sick, my brain grew sore,
And throbb’d awhile, then beat no more;
The skies spun like a mighty wheel;
I saw the trees like drunkards reel,
And a slight flash sprang o’er my eyes,
Which saw no farther: he who dies
Can die no more than then I died.
O’ertortured by that ghastly ride,
I felt the blackness come and go,
And strove to wake; but could not make
My senses climb up from below:
I felt as on a plank at sea,
When all the waves that dash o’er thee,
At the same time upheave and whelm,
And hurl thee towards a desert realm.
My undulating life was as
The fancied lights that flitting pass
Our shut eyes in deep midnight, when
Fever begins upon the brain;
But soon it pass’d, with little pain,
  But a confusion worse than such:
  I own that I should deem it much,
Dying, to feel the same again;
And yet I do suppose we must
Feel far more ere we turn to dust:
No matter; I have bared my brow
Full in Death’s face—before—and now.

  My blood reflow’d, though thick and chill;
  My heart began once more to thrill;
Methought the dash of waves was nigh;
There was a gleam too of the sky,
Studded with stars;—it is no dream;
The wild horse swims the wilder stream!
The bright broad river’s gushing tide
Sweeps, winding onward, far and wide,
And we are half-way, struggling o’er
To yon unknown and silent shore.
The waters broke my hollow trance,
And with a temporary strength
  My stiffen’d limbs were rebaptized.
My courser’s broad breast proudly braves,
And dashes off the ascending waves,
And onward we advance!
We reach the slippery shore at length,
  A haven I but little prized,
For all behind was dark and drear,
And all before was night and fear.
How many hours of night or day
In those suspended pangs I lay,
I could not tell; I scarcely knew
If this were human breath I drew.

With glossy skin, and dripping mane,
  And reeling limbs, and reeking flank,
The wild steed’s sinewy nerves still strain
  Up the repelling bank.
We gain the top: a boundless plain
Spreads through the shadow of the night,
  And onward, onward, onward, seems,
  Like precipices in our dreams,
To stretch beyond the sight;
And here and there a speck of white,
  Or scatter’d spot of dusky green,
In masses broke into the light,
As rose the moon upon my right.
  But nought distinctly seen
In the dim waste would indicate
The omen of a cottage gate;
No twinkling taper from afar
Stood like a hospitable star;
Not even an ignis-fatuus rose
To make him merry with my woes:
  That very cheat had cheer’d me then!
Although detected, welcome still,
Reminding me, through every ill,
  Of the abodes of men.

Onward we went—but slack and slow
  His savage force at length o’erspent,
The drooping courser, faint and low,
  All feebly foaming went.
A sickly infant had had power
To guide him forward in that hour;
  But useless all to me.
His new-born tameness nought avail’d,
My limbs were bound; my force had fail’d,
  Perchance, had they been free.
With feeble effort still I tried
To rend the bonds so starkly tied—
  But still it was in vain;
My limbs were only wrung the more,
And soon the idle strife gave o’er,
  Which but prolong’d their pain.
The dizzy race seem’d almost run;
Some streaks announced the coming sun—
  How slow, alas! he came!
Methought that mist of dawning gray
Would never dapple into day;
How heavily it roll’d away—
  Before the eastern flame
Rose crimson, and deposed the stars,
And call’d the radiance from their cars,
And fill’d the earth, from his deep throne,
With lonely lustre, all his own.

Up rose the sun; the mists were curl’d
Back from the solitary world
Which lay around—behind—before;
What booted it to traverse o’er
Plain, forest, river? Man nor brute,
Nor dint of hoof, nor print of foot,
Lay in the wild luxuriant soil;
No sign of travel—none of toil;
The very air was mute;
And not an insect’s shrill small horn,
Nor matin bird’s new voice was borne
From herb nor thicket. Many a werst,
Panting as if his heart would burst,
The weary brute still stagger’d on;
And still we were—or seem’d—alone:
At length, while reeling on our way,
Methought I heard a courser neigh,
From out yon tuft of blackening firs.
Is it the wind those branches stirs?
No, no! from out the forest prance
  A trampling troop; I see them come!
In one vast squadron they advance!
  I strove to cry—my lips were dumb.
The steeds rush on in plunging pride;
But where are they the reins to guide?
A thousand horse—and none to ride!
With flowing tail, and flying mane,
Wide nostrils—never stretch’d by pain,
Mouths bloodless to the bit or rein,
And feet that iron never shod,
And flanks unscarr’d by spur or rod,
A thousand horse, the wild, the free,
Like waves that follow o’er the sea,
  Came thickly thundering on,
As if our faint approach to meet;
The sight re-nerved my courser’s feet,
A moment staggering, feebly fleet,
A moment, with a faint low neigh,
  He answer’d, and then fell;
With gasps and glazing eyes he lay,
  And reeking limbs immoveable,
    His first and last career is done.
On came the troop—they saw him stoop,
  They saw me strangely bound along
  His back with many a bloody thong:
They stop—they start—they snuff the air,
Gallop a moment here and there,
Approach, retire, wheel round and round,
Then plunging back with sudden bound,
Headed by one black mighty steed,
Who seem’d the patriarch of his breed,
  Without a single speck or hair
Of white upon his shaggy hide;
They snort—they foam—neigh—swerve aside,
And backward to the forest fly,
By instinct, from a human eye.—
  They left me there to my despair,
Link’d to the dead and stiffening wretch,
Whose lifeless limbs beneath me stretch,
Relieved from that unwonted weight,
From whence I could not extricate
Nor him nor me—and there we lay
  The dying on the dead!
And there from morn till twilight bound,
I felt the heavy hours toil round,
With just enough of life to see
My last of suns go down on me.

I know no more—my latest dream
  Is something of a lovely star
  Which fix’d my dull eyes from afar,
And went and came with wandering beam,
And of the cold, dull, swimming, dense
Sensation of recurring sense,
And then subsiding back to death,
And then again a little breath,
A little thrill, a short suspense,
  An icy sickness curdling o’er
My heart, and sparks that cross’d my brain—
A gasp, a throb, a start of pain,
  A sigh, and nothing more.

I woke—Where was I?—Do I see
A human face look down on me?
And doth a roof above me close?
Do these limbs on a couch repose?
Is this a chamber where I lie?
And is it mortal yon bright eye,
That watches me with gentle glance?
  I closed my own again once more,
As doubtful that the former trance
  Could not as yet be o’er.
A slender girl, long-haired, and tall,
Sate watching by the cottage wall;
The sparkle of her eye I caught,
Even with my first return of thought;
For ever and anon she threw
  A prying, pitying glance on me
  With her black eyes so wild and free:
I gazed, and gazed, until I knew
  No vision it could be,—
But that I lived, and was released
From adding to the vulture’s feast:
And when the Cossack maid beheld
My heavy eyes at length unseal’d,
She smiled—and I essay’d to speak,
  But failed—and she approach’d, and made
  With lip and finger signs that said,
I must not strive as yet to break
The silence, till my strength should be
Enough to leave my accent free;
And then her hand on mine she laid,
And smooth’d the pillow for my head,
And stole along on tiptoe tread,
  And gently oped the door, and spake
In whispers—ne’er was voice so sweet!
Even music follow’d her light feet;—
  But those she call’d were not awake,
And she went forth; but, ere she pass’d,
Another look on me she cast,
  Another sign she made, to say,
That I had nought to fear, that all
Were near, at my command or call,
  And she would not delay
Her due return:—while she was gone,
Methought I felt too much alone.

She came with mother and with sire—
What need of more?—I will not tire
With long recital of the rest,
Since I became the Cossack’s guest.
They found me senseless on the plain—
  They bore me to the nearest hut—
They brought me into life again—
Me—one day o’er their realm to reign!

Published in Poetry of Byron

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